Years ago, a good friend of mine said something that just stuck with me. “I could care less about rigor”—surprising words from an honors-level high school teacher. “What I care about is vigor.” I realized that she had assumed a completely new intention for challenging students in their learning. Rather than trying to get them to work hard at hard work, she made it her aim (and still does) to inspire passion and an internal drive. This is a fundamental difference, so basic that such a change in perspective, on a large scale, could change the entire educational landscape.
The definitions of these words speak largely for themselves, so let’s take a look.
According to Webster, “vigor” means:
1: active bodily or mental strength or force
2: active healthy well-balanced growth especially of plants
3: intensity of action or effect : force
4: effective legal status
When I read these definitions, I think of a flower bud burgeoning forth with such fervor that it can’t be stopped. I think of grass breaking through the cracks in concrete, staking its claim, saying “I’m here.” Or the sun burning in the mid-afternoon because it simply can’t help it.
By contrast, Webster defines “rigor” as:
1: a (1) : harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3) : severity of life : austerity b : an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
2: a tremor caused by a chill
3: a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially : extremity of cold
4: strict precision : exactness logical rigor
5: a obsolete : rigidity, stiffness b : rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli c : rigor mortis
If this is the word that qualifies a worthy education, I think that’s a real shame. Maybe, in the context of learning, we just have a misunderstanding of this word, but even if we don’t mean “unyielding inflexibility,” the undertones are there when we seek hardness for hardness sake. At best, we mean standards that prove their merit by the tenacity and sheer will (or talent) required to meet them. We mean standards that serious kids take seriously. Sure, there is a time to push through, to press on, but, forgive me, what does that have to do with learning? The characteristics of being hardworking and responsible may be learned, but they are not, in fact, learning. They are traits better suited to duty. Learning, however, serves us, not the other way around.
Rigor is simply the wrong measure. The deepest learning happens in a state of free-flowing wonder. Stiffening the standards will only serve to calcify students’ imaginations and curiosity, which I fear looks like “burnout” in “dead-end jobs” down the road. A sort of career rigor mortis. However, vigor, sharing the same root as “wake”, is not about hard work per se; it is an intensity, a desire, a force that is awoken within and emanates from the learners themselves. In this way, it is sustainable as long as it is fed by stimuli, which could be fascinating information, an engaging experience, or even witnessing the presence of vigor in others such as peers, teachers, or mentors. Because its very nature is to actively seek stimuli, vigor grows exponentially, both within the individual and within a group. Like the grass breaking through the sidewalk cracks, vigor is hard to stop once it gains momentum, and therefore, is an exceptional predictor of future success.
Think, think of the kid you know who lights up about that particular something or about everything, the one who needs no prodding to try, the one you don’t worry about.
They all could be like that.
[photo credit: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com]
Katy joined the staff at Princeton Learning Cooperative in 2015 and prior to that worked as an English teacher for 13 years in public high school. Fueled by her conviction that education is a personal journey that cannot be standardized, Katy left traditional schooling behind. Despite the professional risks, she refused to proctor the PARCC assessment, which she felt was harmful to students. At PLC, Katy has found an approach that honors the student and learning itself. She holds a degree in English and secondary education from The College of New Jersey.